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13 July 2011

Tennessee storm spotters help warn of danger

Image: Spotter Network

NASHVILLE - Who wouldn't want to be the one whose timely warning saves lives when violent weather strikes? US National Weather Service forecaster Tom Johnstone believes that impetus drives many of the volunteers he trains to be storm spotters.

"The trained spotter is the last line of defense in a community," Johnstone said. "They provide a real community service."

Tina Rigsby had another reason: Storms frightened her badly.

"I was scared to death of storms," Rigsby said by telephone from her home near Manchester. "As a teenager it never bothered me. The 'chicken' part came in when I had kids."

Rigsby - or Tina Tornado, as her friends know her - is one of hundreds of people the Weather Service has trained to report on violent weather in Tennessee. The Nashville office of the Weather Service is responsible for forecasting and alerts in 39 counties and has trained spotters in every one of them.

The basic class for beginners takes only a few hours and there is no charge for it.

Many people who drop by out of curiosity get hooked.

Tom Delker of Smyrna has a four-decade-old weather reporting habit that, as with many other spotters, he pairs with being an amateur radio operator.

Delker says not all spotters are hams (the slang term for amateur radio licensees), but the two interests dovetail well. Not only do hams take a lead role in alerting the Weather Service of violent conditions on the ground, they often are a key element in emergency response afterward.

Spotters are trained to report to the Weather Service within specific criteria that include tornadoes on the ground, funnel clouds sighted aloft, rotating wall clouds and hail at least a half-inch in diameter. They also report damage, including homes damaged, trees on roads, power outages and the like.

During weather emergencies, volunteers come to the Weather Service office and operate a "ham shack" there, passing information from amateur radio operators in the field directly to forecasters. That occurs four to six times in an average year, Johnstone said.

More often, a coordinator runs the Skywarn system remotely, prioritizing vital information and passing it along to Weather Service staff.

There is also a virtual ready room in which amateur radio coordinators, emergency management officials, forecasters and the media tap into an Internet chat room to share information.

Some trained spotters are also using social media to flash information to their followers on Twitter and Facebook in a phenomenon called "nowcasting," which involves real-time coverage of weather in areas as small as neighborhoods.

David Drobny, a 35-year-old attorney in Nashville, uses smartphone technology to serve people who follow his tweets in Davidson and Williamson counties.

He says sometimes his messages are relayed by other Twitter users and he has reached up to 13,000 followers.

Spotters vary widely in age, occupation, lifestyle, income and nearly every other measure, but Johnstone said there is a commonality - an interest in being of service to other people. Johnstone said he has trained spotters are young as 12. Some new spotters are retired couples, looking for something they enjoy doing together.

Johnstone hastens to say these are not storm chasers, but people trained to safely report on severe weather from their neighborhoods.

The formerly terrified Rigsby says the class that taught her about spotting storms also eased her fear of them. It also launched her on a new volunteer path; speaking at school career days. She did one at her daughter's school and then was asked to speak at one in Tracy City.

Asked how it went, Rigsby replied that students were fascinated by her avocation and thought it was cooler than other jobs.

"I even beat the fireman," Rigsby said. "It made me feel really, really good."

- AP